Review

Thomas Hardy

by Claire Tomalin

Thomas Hardy's fame today, almost 70 years after his death,
rests on great novels like THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE, TESS OF THE
D'URBERVILLES and THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE. It is thus surprising
to learn from biographer Claire Tomalin that he considered himself
mainly a poet who wrote novels only for the money. Taking him at
his word, Tomalin devotes major attention throughout her book to
how his poetry reflects the twists and turns of his career, the
people he knew and loved (or disliked) and the places he
visited.

Tomalin has been involved in British literary journalism for many
years. A few years ago she wrote an engrossing book about Ellen
Ternan, the young actress with whom Charles Dickens carried on a
secret affair toward the end of his life. Her study of Hardy also
looks at her subject's private life, but she functions also as a
literary critic, subjecting Hardy's novels, poetry, short stories
and other writings to a good deal of clear-eyed and fair-minded
critical appraisal. The book, however, gets off to a slow start.
She takes a chapter or two to find the right biographical voice,
but once she has found it, she uses it skillfully indeed.

What readers are likely to find new in her book is its detailed
attention to Hardy's poetry. He wrote over a thousand poems, many
of them closely reflecting his life experience, and Tomalin's text
is sprinkled liberally with samples. Read purely as poetry they are
mostly excellent, but as here skillfully related to the events that
prompted them, they take on even greater interest. On the evidence
of this book, Hardy seems woefully underrepresented in most
anthologies of British poetry.

Hardy was born in 1840 to a family of humble construction workers
in Dorset on the channel coast of England southwest of London. He
seemed headed for a humdrum career in architecture until he got the
writing bug and produced a controversial novel that no publisher
would touch. He was, however, sufficiently encouraged to keep at
it, and the publication of DESPERATE REMEDIES in 1871 began his
career's upward climb. He never attended a university, married the
daughter of a country clergyman and was only gradually accepted by
the class-conscious English society of his time. As his fame slowly
grew, his marriage soured, and by the time Emma Hardy died in 1912,
the couple was living as if separated even though they resided in
the same house (Tomalin calls the situation one of "mutual
incomprehension"). Emma complained in a letter that "he understands
only the women he invents --- the others not at all." Hardy's
second marriage, to a young admirer, seems in Tomalin's rendering
to have been not much more successful --- Florence Hardy comes
across as temperamental, easily offended and generally
troublesome.

Hardy also lost his Christian faith, a fact that may be reflected
in the bleak emotional landscape of his later novels, whose
characters struggle, usually vainly, against malignant natural and
cultural forces they cannot control. Yet Hardy characteristically
continued to attend church services now and then, explaining lamely
that it was good for people "to get clean and come together once a
week." The man Hardy, Tomalin says, was "hard to know."

Once Hardy became "seriously rich" and famous, he took to enjoying
high life among England's literary and social elite. He always
insisted that he be buried in his beloved Dorset rather than in
Westminster Abbey, but his friends overruled him after his death
and there was a full-dress Westminster burial of his ashes, with A.
E. Houseman, Kipling, Shaw and Galsworthy among the pallbearers.
His heart, however, was first removed and buried in his hometown of
Dorchester. Even in death, Hardy managed to have the best of both
of his worlds.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

Thomas Hardy
by Claire Tomalin

  • Publication Date: January 18, 2007
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
  • ISBN-10: 1594201188
  • ISBN-13: 9781594201189